Thursday, 28 May 2009

Lady Herbert's Homes and Garden, Coventry

For some more photos of the homes and the garden, click here. Lady Florence Herbert is also commemorated by the lychgate at St James the Less, Litchfield (next to Dunley) and the Lady Chapel at St Barbara's, Earlsdon.

Flowery Oasis in Central Coventry
[The Midland Daily Telegraph, Friday May 30th 1930]

It is a particularly happy thought that a section of Coventry's old City wall, built nearly 600 years ago in order to ensure the safety of the inhabitants in those troublous days, should now become the central feature of "A Place of Rest and Refreshment from the Growing Turmoil of the Streets".

As Coventry has already learned through the medium of these columns, Sir Alfred Herbert has made himself responsible for a scheme whereby the most complete remaining section of the city wall, stretching between Cook Street gate and the Swanswell Gate in Hale Street will be cleared of its unsightly surroundings, the old stonework restored, and the vicinity laid out with beautiful gardens in memory of Lady Herbert, who's death took place on Sunday.

It is pathetic to contemplate that Lady Herbert passed away only one day before a legal agreement was reached between the Corporation and the owners of the whole of the remaining property which it was necessary to acquire before the success of the scheme could be realised.

Coventry has had other reasons for appreciating the civic generosity of Sir Alfred and Lady Herbert, who were jointly interested in demonstrating their devotion to their own work people as well as to the city at large, and it is tragic to realise that Lady Herbert will be unable to see the culmination of a scheme with which she had been so closely concerned.

Some time must obviously elapse before the reconstructed 'Rope Walk' - the site of the scheme - is named, but in response to Sir Alfred Herbert's wish, the memory of his wife will be perpetuated though the medium of this flowerly oasis in embryo, with the massive city walls and gates as a reminder of the civic grandeur associated with the spot.

Some such scheme as this has been 'indicated' for many years and it is somewhat surprising that city Councils of the past have tolerated the growth of masses of mean sheds and the accumulation of unsightly rubbish around the city walls which Coventrians of the C15th built with such thoroughness and care, and the existence of which was alone responsible for Coventry's prominent place in the affairs of England in the Middle Ages.

Days of Civic Inertia

When the writer visited the spot yesterday, he was more than ever forced to the conclusion that some extraordinary species of civic inertia must have descended upon the city's governors of the past century, who must have regarded these ancient stone walls with little more regard than would have been paid to derelict tenements.

It is amazing to find for instance that the City Council has had to repurchase what might normally have been considered to be its own walls and gates. They must have belonged to the city for centuries, and even in the semi-destroyed state which the vengeance of Charles II caused them to be left, there were still large sections which remained in perfect condition, particularly the many handsome gateways. While it is true that modern Coventry may have found the presence of gigantic walls and narrow gateways a handicap to its development, it is by no means inconceivable that means could have been found of preserving some of the best features of these embattlements without restricting progress.

It was in the course of the C14th when royal rivalries, intrigues and civil wars and rebellions were frequent occurrences, that Coventry's citizens became convinced of the necessity of surrounding the city with a wall for its adequate protection. In 1328, the inhabitants of Coventry, headed by the monks of the great Benedictine monastery obtained a patent from Edward III permitting them to take a toll of all vendible commodities brought here over a period of six years towards the expense of enclosing the city.

Matters progressed rather slowly, and it was no until 1353 that the recently consituted municipal corporation commenced the job. The first stone was laid in that year by the mayor at New Gate, situated near the junction of Much Park St and Whitefriars St. Richard II appears to have supported the men of Coventry nobly in their gigantic task, for not only did he confirm the powers granted by his father, but granted liberty for the digging of a large quantity of stone from his park at Cheylesmore. This support was continued throughout his reign through the medium of generous gifts of land.

The man of Coventry went about their task in a manner which cannot fail to arouse admiration. They built a magnificent wall, equipped with gates and towers, in which architectural beauty was exploited to the uttermost, and despite the fact that the task took 40 years to complete, the patience of the masons was even equal to the task of beautifying the gates with rich carvings. The wall was completed in about 1395.

It had a length of three miles and in the main wall, the wall was three yards in thickness. There were 32 towers and bastions including twelve gates. The gates were by no means stereotyped in style, and it is unfortunate that the only two remaining ones, Cook St and Stanswell Gates, are among the least imposing of the twelve. Greyfriars gate, which formerly stood at a spot near the bottom of Hertford St, was a particularly fine structure, the tunnel-like aperture running for about twenty yards between two immense circular towers, backed by a solid fort-like structure of considerable depth and containing apartments for men and arms.

For about 250 years these stupendous wall, gates and towers stood in all their completeness, and an annual tax was payable fro their efficient maintenance. Coventry prized her walls in those days with an almost fanatical devotion. In toublous times the inhabitants took their share in the task of 'watch and ward'. As years went by the solidity of those walls became a prize well worth fighting for, not only by the inhabitants who lived under their protection, but also by rival royal factions who appreciated their value as a sanctuary against powerful enemies.

At last came a time when Coventry's walls shut out a king. in 1642, at a time when Charles I had thoroughly alienated Parliament and the country by his high-flown contentions, and after he had failed ignominiously to obtain possession of the walled town of Hull, he came to Coventry with the hope of making this strongly-fortified city the centre of his Midland operations. He had a large force with him, and demanded admission. The people of Coventry welcomed the King, but would not admit his troops. Charles attempted to enter the city by force and even burst one of the gates with cannon-shots, but the citizens manned the breach in the very mouth of the royal guns.

The cavity was filled with carts, barrows and timber, and the King's cavaliers were repulsed with heavy musketry fire from the battlements sustaining very heavy loss. Some years later, popular opinion turned round in the direction of Charles II and Coventry gave some extravagant demonstrations of its loyalty to the new King. Nothing however could efface from his memory the affront which Coventry has offered to his father in that time of his greatest trouble. He resolved that Coventry's walls should never again form an obstacle to the entrance of a sovreign, and in 1662 he sent the Earl of Northampton to demolish the city walls.

The first breach was made at New Gate, where the first stone was laid many years before, and which was also the point at which Charles I had been refused admission. Nearly 500 men were engaged in the work of destruction, which went on for three weeks and three days, but it is stated that the wreckers far exceeded their duties in the wholesale destruction which they carried out.

From that time onwards, Coventry seems to have lost interest in its former proudest possession. From time to time, either sections of the wall were demolished, always at great expenditure of labour, and often with the aid of gunpowder. The stone and other materials were used for building operations, and although there are no records in existence, it is apparent that the Corporation sold remaining sections of the wall to private persons.

The fine gates which were not destroyed by Charles's men were demolished from time to time. New Gate was taken down in 1762. Bishop Gate in 1764. Gosford Gate in 1765. Spon Gate in 1776 and the handsome Greyfriars Gate in 1781. In view of the wholesale destruction which went on for another century or two, it is surprising that even Cook St and Swanswell Gates remain.

Col WF Wyley performed a valued public action when he purchased Cook St Gate and presented it to the city in 1907 and that generous action has now been handsomely followed by Sir Alfred Herbert's gift. Between Cook St and the Swanswell gate in Hale St a considerable section of the old wall still remains, along what has been known as 'Rope Walk', a distance of 150 yards. Most of it consists of an open passage 110 yards in length and 50 ft wide, now used as a timber yard by Messrs Newarks. At the Cook St end there is a wide block of property largely consisting of large sheds, garages etc together with some cottage property and some other buildings of a more permanent character. The Swanswell Gate has also been used as a dwelling house
for many years, and the roadway which once passed through it has been blocked up. There is also some cottage property adjoining.

In its recent parliamentary Act the Corporation obtained powers for the compulsory acquisition of the whole of the property indicated in the accompanying plan, and Sir Alfred Herbert has now come to the aid of the city by offering to pay the costs incurred to the estimated extent of £10,000.

It will be seen that the scheme will also effect and important improvement of Cook St, for it is proposed to demolish all the property surrounding the gate, and to leave it open to more advantageous inspection. The Swanswell gate will also be restored, the gateway in its centre opened, and the space thus cleared will be laid out as ornamental gardens.

Certain section of the wall adjoining this spot are completely covered by buildings, but the foundations will, presumably, be uncovered. The City Engineers have carefully collected large quantities of original stone from the city wall which have been uncovered from time to time, and it is probable that this will be used in the restoration work.

Rebuilding the Coventry Cross

Sir Alfred Herbert makes a very interesting suggestion in the course of his correspondence with the City Council on the subject, when he expresses the hope that it may be possible to gather together some of the fragments of the old Coventry Cross which formerly stood in Cross Cheaping, and re-erect it in the 'Rope Walk' gardens.

There has been more than one such cross in Cross Cheaping the purpose of them having been to designate the site of the market. The first of these erections was quite a simple affair, but a more elaborate one was erected in 1422 at a cost of £50. In 1540 this was removed and its place occupied by a gorgeous Gothic pyramid of four stories, 57 ft high, its niches containing statues of religious and historical personages, the whole being richly adorned with pinnacles, metal-work heraldic shields etc so highly illuminated with gold and colours that it is a tradition that it is almost impossible to look at it when the sun shone.

In 1669 the cross was repaired and beautified at a cost even greater than that of its erection, but from that time onwards it was wholly neglected and in 1771 it was taken down to save the cost of repairs. A similar fate befel this valuable old relic as was met by the city walls and gates in a period of amazing absence of civic pride. For many years it was known that portions of he cross were in existence in various parts of the city and neighbourhood.

The Midland Daily Telegraph, Friday May 30th 1930

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